Dvorak’s String Quartet, Opus 96 in F Major, the “American” is one of my all-time favorite pieces to play. Its folk-like qualities, jaunty rhythmical motifs and heartfelt melodic writing make it accessible to understand for musicians at all levels, as well as a real crowd pleaser. Each voice has interesting writing throughout and many moments to shine. The level of technical difficulty is advanced intermediate, with particular challenges for each instrumentalist. Because of the clarity of the counterpoint and sheer beauty of the writing, it is especially satisfying to work on and perform.
The quartet got the nickname “American” because Dvorak wrote the piece during the 3 years that he spent in this country, 1892-95. Already well known as a composer and teacher in his native Bohemia, he was invited to come to New York City and head up the National Conservatory of Music, part of an effort to develop indigenous American musical talent and compositional style. This was a daring move for a renowned European musician at the end of the 19th Century, but Dvorak loved to travel and experience new worlds. After his first academic year in New York, he traveled by train with his family (including all 6 children) to the Czech-speaking farm village of Spillville, Iowa for a summer vacation. It was here that he wrote the quartet in a very short time, inspired by the many uniquely American sounds, both musical and natural, that he heard there.
The “American” references in the quartet are interesting, though not essential for understanding or working on the quartet. As an example, the themes of the first and second movements are based on the pentatonic (5-note) scale, which in F major consists of the notes F, G, A, C, D. The viola tune which starts the piece uses only these notes, as does the opening of the melody in the second movement. Use of the pentatonic scale gives the piece an open-sounding, folkloric character. We know that Dvorak was very interested in local indigenous music styles, and listened to Negro spirituals and Native American songs and poetry. The slow movement suggests a Native American rhythm with its obbligato accompaniment of pizzicato cello (like a continuous drum beat) and swaying repeated figures in 2nd violin and viola, under an “Indian lament” melody in the violin.
In the third movement, Dvorak quotes a bird song that he heard in Spillville, the chirp of the scarlet tanager (you can google this!) Supposedly this incessant chirping annoyed him and he exorcised it by using the chirp as a basis for the second theme. In addition to the sounds of nature Dvorak had a particular fondness for industrial innovations of the time, and loved to visit train stations in New York to observe their inner workings. In the fourth movement, his use of persistent repeated rhythms as a forward propulsion several times suggests the motion of a train gathering momentum as it barrels ahead to a rousing finale.
Barbara Bogatin joined the San Francisco Symphony in 1994. Previously, she served as principal cellist with the Milwaukee and New Jersey symphony orchestras, and she was a frequent substitute player with the New York Philharmonic for ten years. A native of Santa Rosa, she studied at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music Preparatory Division and holds bachelor's and master's degrees from the Juilliard School. An avid chamber music player, Barbara has performed with New York Chamber Soloists, Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Chamber Music Northwest, Tiburon Chamber Players, Stockholm Summer Festival, Eastern Music Festival and in the inaugural season this past summer at Lake Tahoe Summerfest.